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It's Donald Duck's birthday! A film historian charts his 90-year evolution

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Donald.


One of America's most beloved birds turns 90 years old today, and I must say, he's one of the only birds that I actually like. Donald Duck hatched from Walt Disney Studios on June 9, 1934, when he starred in the cartoon short, "The Wise Little Hen," and supposedly learned the value of hard work.


FLORENCE GILL: (As the Wise Little Hen, vocalizing).

CLARENCE NASH: (As Donald Duck, vocalizing).

RASCOE: Whether or not Donald Duck actually internalized that lesson is debatable. But one thing is for sure - he's nested securely inside the hearts of millions of people around the world. J.B. Kaufman is a film historian who's written several books on Disney films. He joins us now from Wichita, Kan. Welcome to the show.

J B KAUFMAN: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

RASCOE: The words that come to mind when people think of Donald Duck are angry, lazy, easily frustrated, and, of course, pretty hard to understand. Was he always like that?

KAUFMAN: Almost from the beginning, yes. His violent temper surfaced for the first time in his second screen appearance, which was a Mickey Mouse short called "Orphans' Benefit." He was provoked into losing his temper and threw a mighty tantrum that went over big with audiences. Mickey Mouse was, and of course, still is the real figurehead of the Disney Studio. But by the mid-'30s, he had been pretty well typed as a nice guy. And that meant that there were a lot of things that he couldn't do in a cartoon. He would never provoke a fight or anything like that. Well, Donald Duck didn't have any restrictions like that. His bad temper came to the surface right away. And I think Walt kind of got a kick out of that. So he encouraged that kind of bad behavior in Donald.

RASCOE: And what about the voice?

KAUFMAN: Well, that came from a man named Clarence Nash. He - from an early age, he had shown a real knack for doing animal imitations. And in fact, he'd already been doing freelance work for the Disney Studio, coming in to record bird calls and various animal sounds for the soundtracks of the cartoons, so much that he kind of developed a parlor trick of putting on this baby goat's voice and reciting "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Walt heard this, and where Nash was picturing a goat, Walt heard a talking duck.

RASCOE: Well, let's move on to the 1940s when Donald Duck moonlighted in wartime films, like "Donald Gets Drafted."


NASH: (As Donald Duck) All right, sign me up. I want to be a flier. You know, one of those guys that just (imitating popping sound).

RASCOE: (Laughter) How did he end up in these propaganda films?

KAUFMAN: Well, those were the times. Mickey Mouse was such a nice guy that he was really nobody's idea of a fighting man, and he kind of disappeared from cartoons for the duration of the war. But Donald was - he definitely had a warlike spirit. You just heard him volunteering to join the army and be a flyer. But then when he actually is in the service, he realizes right away that this is not a glamorous life. He has the same kind of drudgery routine that other GIs had.

RASCOE: We also found Donald Duck in the short educational film "Donald In Mathmagic Land."


NASH: (As Donald Duck) Mathematics? That's for eggheads.

PAUL FREES: (As Narrator) Eggheads? Now, hold on, Donald. You like music, don't you?

NASH: (As Donald Duck) Yeah.

FREES: (As Narrator) Well, without eggheads, there would be no music.

KAUFMAN: That was yet another place where Donald's less than perfect character really served him well because he started out as a reluctant student. And then the idea is that he goes through this experience and starts to see how fascinating mathematics can be, and it kind of brings the audience along with him.

RASCOE: So what's Donald Duck like nowadays? I know he's in the new version of "Duck Tales."

KAUFMAN: He hasn't changed a lot. I think if there has been a change, it's been to make him, let's say, more family friendly. A lot of Donald's cartoons have very sharp, pointed, sophisticated humor. When it comes to characters like Donald, I think the company is aiming for more of a gentle, kind of cuddlier version of Donald so that he won't offend anybody. But the raw temper and everything, you can still spot that. That's still there.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KAUFMAN: There's a great quote from Walt Disney. He's a composite of all the people you don't like and a few of the people you do.

RASCOE: That's J.B. Kaufman. He is a film historian. Thank you so much for joining us.

KAUFMAN: Well, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure talking with you about this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Andrew Craig
Andrew Craig is a journalist from Denver, Colorado. He loves to learn about the world, and tell stories that raise critical questions and inspire empathy. A graduate of Yale University (BA '14) and The University of Texas at Austin (MA '18), he began working for NPR in 2019. His hobbies include reading, people watching, and exploring new places.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.